Thursday, November 21, 2019

Parallelograms and Taxes

Spring - Nadine Ens
“I’m glad I studied parallelograms in high school rather than how to do my taxes; it’s really handy at parallelogram time!”

Aphorisms like the one above have been floating around in increasing numbers on social media. There are a couple of problems with declarations of, “Why waste my time in school studying things I don’t use when I’m out there making a life, a family, a career?” One is obvious: there is no reason why a person of average intelligence (as most of us are) can’t become proficient at both taxes and parallelograms. Secondly, taxes are a complex issue and learning how to fill out the income tax declaration so it’s acceptable to Revenue Canada doesn’t guarantee an understanding of how our governments collect and spend citizens’ dollars, doesn’t guarantee that we will be knowledgeable about the huge picture of how citizens cooperate to run a nation successfully. Doesn’t guarantee that we’ll be voters any democracy would be proud of.

Meanwhile, parallelograms are just a small, almost insignificant part of Mathematics and Geometry, and Mathematics and Geometry can provide basic understandings of how the universe works, understandings that were necessary for the invention of everything from the wheel to the silicon chip. True, people who do understand wheels and silicon chips will make a computer for me that I can use, but our future as a civilization depends on how our knowledge and inventiveness is applied. We learned to harness nuclear energy . . . and made with that knowledge a bomb that can kill thousands in a single event. Our children and grandchildren’s happiness depends on our understanding of the predictable consequences of climate change and a host of other issues.

Anatomically, learning is the creation of brain pathways that facilitate thinking and/or that facilitate physical action, like playing a chord on a guitar or mixing different paints to achieve a certain colour, or filling out a tax form while contemplating the meaning of Schroedinger’s cat experiment. The number of pathways that can be created is unlimited; studying parallelograms doesn’t interfere with learning how to fill out a tax form. Children who live in a two-language environment can become fluent in both before they even start school.

For me, a good analogy for understanding learning is music. We appear to be born with a pathway that recognizes rhythm, certainly, and harmony, possibly. But to play the piano, numerous additional pathways must be created, and the pathway that allows the brain and body to cooperate in identifying C# on paper and playing it on the keyboard, I’m told, requires an average of seventy repetitions before it becomes a permanent pathway. You can easily imagine how many brain pathways are required, for instance, to play Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in D Minor, Opus 30. You might think that to play this, Alexander Malofeev could have done nothing but practice every day, all day. True, he practiced a lot, spent a lot of time with teachers. But learning his level of skill on the piano certainly didn’t prevent him from learning to fill out a tax form, to appreciate the applications of the parallelogram in mechanical applications.

The brain, we’ve learned, has amazing capacities so that if its potential were to be measured in gigabytes, it would exceed the largest computer we’ve invented. I can’t imagine that anyone claiming that learning only a few pathways necessary for mundane survival is doing it justice. For believers, the argument might go like this: “Why would God have given us such capability except as a gift to be used, to be enjoyed, to be inventive, to be happy.”

Renaissance Man is a humanist doctrine that says, according to Britannica: “[man is] limitless in his capacities for development . . . and . . . should try to embrace all knowledge and develop [his] own capacity as fully as possible.” Leonardo da Vinci, painter, inventor, mathematician, humanist is held up as the hallmark of the Renaissance spirit, of course.

It’s too easy to point at schools’ failure to educate our children in all the pathways that the complex life to come will require of them. We are all implicated. The broadening of our capacity—as Britannica puts it—is a life-long, exciting endeavour. Adults who model curiosity and exploration to children need not be in the education business. To expect teachers to make up for parents who themselves dropped out of the learning, exploring, practicing mentality is to ask too much of them.

So what causes us to mount this attack on broad, liberal education? Is it our belief that to secure a good occupation with good pay is all that’s necessary for our sense of worth, our happiness? Is it sheer laziness that creates in us a dominant brain pathway that responds primarily to entertainment and physical pleasure? Or is it that we live in a culture and economy that benefits from an ignorant-and-so-gullible population?

I asked a person aged around 20 a while ago what would be the best way for a museum curator to communicate with her generation. “Not facebook or posters or announcements in newspapers,” was her answer: “Instagram, Snap-chat; a striking picture with not more than one sentence.” Her opinion, apparently, was that the days of “reading stuff” was over, that attention would now be paid primarily to rapid-fire, ever-changing visual stimuli. It’s scary. Think about it. The wisdom of the ages stored in books sent to recycling in favour of the mental masturbation of flashing stimuli on a screen.

That sounds harsh, but far more important even than the spouting of badly framed, almost incoherent opinions on climate change, for instance, is the language competence with which we debate and come to agreement on important issues that affect us all. Young people are graduating from our institutions without the ability to frame a coherent, logical argument, spoken or in writing. Challenging enough for many is the constructing of an intelligible sentence. There are so many essential brain pathways that aren’t developing because, in part at least, smart phones and computers have duped us into thinking that reading and writing, thinking and debating are as redundant as the knowledge of parallelograms.

Akin to the aphorism with which I began this diatribe is a current meme that says, in effect, “My ignorance is worth just as much as your knowledge,” a viewpoint supported by the fact that the one who knows lots and the one who knows nothing each get one vote. In the end, democracy lives or dies by the wisdom of the individuals who cast ballots.

So, what am I really urging here? Nothing more than that we be life-long learners, and that we share a curiosity and an attitude of exploration with our children. When in his seventies, my father-in-law expressed a thought that he would go back to university—if only he was younger. “I’d be eighty when I graduated!” My wife’s comment to him was, “Well, how old will you be in four years if you don’t go?”

Some suggestions:
  1. Think about brain-health as much as about physical health. Read this article on Alzheimer’s prevention.
  2. Study and learn another language; use the free DuoLingo or the cheap Babel or take a class.
  3. Get back to reading books, even if it’s slow going and you sometimes need a dictionary at your elbow. Take notes as you go.
  4. Walk 6,000 steps a day if you can.
  5. Take a course on a subject on which you’ve never concentrated before. Athabasca University is only one source you might peruse.
  6. Volunteer in your local school; take note of how education is done “these days.”
  7. Correspond with a friend as a way of exploring issues, by email can work.
  8. Cut down TV time to make room for reading and study.
  9. Eat more fish.
  10. Learn a word a day . . . and use it seventy times.
  11. Join or form a book club.
  12. Get a library card and go there often.
  13. Actually read political party platforms.
  14. Buy a ukelele or a recorder and learn to play it.
  15. Visits museums and galleries and engage with what’s on display.
  16. Learn the difference among parallelograms, trapezoids, rhombuses, isosceles and equilateral triangles . . . just for fun!
  17. Above all, challenge yourself! Think “I should try to embrace all knowledge and develop my own capacity as fully as possible.”

Sunday, September 29, 2019

A politician's speech I'm waiting to hear . . ..

Remembering Van Gogh's "A bedroom in Arles."

First of all, let me clarify why I’m here, speaking to you. In a few weeks, you’ll choose one person from this constituency to represent you for four years in the national government. I and four others have filed the paperwork that places us on the ballot. Your choice is yours to make, and it’s entirely secret unless you choose to divulge it. In the best case scenario, the candidate with the best knowledge of the constituency, the best equipped and qualified to represent its citizens will be chosen for the job. I’m here today to help you judge whether or not I am that person. Simple as that.

To my mind, our national government is remiss if it’s unable to think beyond current reality toward both the short term and the long-term future needs of this country, something that we have done only poorly recently, probably because our politics has become overburdened with strategies for re-election and under-burdened with big-picture thinking.

An example: Miranda works for a Toronto-based company in its Sudbury branch office. She’s called to meet with senior management in downtown Toronto and chooses to drive. Miranda owns a Ford Focus weighing 1,400 kilograms, she weighs 55 kilograms, so her choice requires enough energy to move 1,400 plus 55 kilograms from Sudbury to Toronto and back. She gets into greater Toronto at the height of the morning commute and ends up in a traffic tie-up so that the engine on her car is running for an extra half-hour, belching its contribution of greenhouse gases along with all the other cars, semis and motorcycles. It’s a scenario that’s almost comically absurd, bordering on the obscene even, when we think of how much energy is wasted when we need to move 55 kilograms of person from Sudbury to Toronto and back in order to facilitate a one hour conversation around a board table.

Unfortunately, our knee jerk response to such absurdities is to facilitate them, throw another billion dollars of taxpayers’ money into the addition of yet another traffic lane, yet another overpass. A middle-school Science class might well come up with a suggestion that Miranda and senior management could quite nicely have held their meeting on Skype, or Face-time, or perhaps the low-tech speaker phone. A more sophisticated, adult thought process would take into account all the factors relative to corporate, tourism, freight demands and invest in a twinned, high-speed passenger and freight link between Sudbury and downtown Toronto.

Trucks can back right up to the loading dock, both at the source and the destination of a shipment. Ships can’t, trains can’t and airplanes can’t. Taxis come right to your door and drop you off at your destination, commuter trains and buses don’t. And weighing the convenience factor more heavily than the conservation/pollution factors has brought us to where we are.

As your representative, preparing our country for an efficient, sustainable travel and transportation future would be one of my preoccupations.

Everything governments do involves the budgeting process. You can write the following down, if you like, as a policy or as a promise coming from me; the swings from deficit to surplus and back must end; henceforth the relative weighting among revenue sources: corporate taxes, income taxes, consumption and property taxes, etc. must be established semi-permanently, and the formulae for what is owed to the work we do federally should slide up and down according to the bottom line of the budget approved by parliament. If, for instance, a large infrastructure plan is budgeted for, thereby raising the bottom spending line by 4%, all tax, excise, licence, etc. categories for the year will rise by 4%, and if the budget for a year shrinks by 4%, all tax categories reduce by 4%. In other words, all budgets are always balanced. Governments will no longer campaign on tinkering with tax percentages; computer algorithms will take that job on.

Healthcare will undoubtedly remain the elephant in the room of both federal and provincial budgets. Little can be done to downsize this portion of the budget when providing universal healthcare as we do. The shortages in healthcare personnel tells us that lowering salaries and reimbursements would only make that problem worse, and there’s probably not much more we’ll be able to do about drug prices in the current marketplace.

Two goals I would pursue would be prevention and reinvention of client-service models. We’ve already begun to emphasize nutrition and exercise, stress relief and well-being as precursors of mental and physical health. Forward thinking would have us plan for facilities and practices that tend to make accessing health-preserving strategies simpler and easier. As examples, Rosthern has fitness gadgets as part of the central park/playground green space. Recreation and diversion for nursing home and assisted living institutions, for retirement communities always have room for expansion to alleviate more of the anxiety and depression of people in confinement. Bowling alleys, skating rinks, golf, pickleball, etc. when made affordable via subsidy could do a lot to keep the people who access the healthcare system both active and happy, precursors of better health. So far, our emphases has been mainly on expanding and modernizing critical care facilities, alongside the struggle to attract practitioners, of course.

What I mean by "refining client-services" is the remodeling and expansion of what we call “home-care.” The future requires that we make healthcare more and more portable—short of the do-it-yourself appendectomy kit, of course. There’s a difference in cost to the public purse if a practical nurse tends a wound or if a medical doctor does basically the same thing. Even cheaper if mom or dad know how to do it. There’s a saving if a patient is seen a few times a day by a practical nurse to monitor vitals as opposed to providing a hospital bed. Let’s face also the reality that when it comes to medical services, state-of-the-art, available-on-demand services can never be provided unless as individuals we have the means to bypass the medicare system, which in this country has gained the stature of a religion. 

Expectations have to be managed; an elective surgery for which one needs to wait a few months is not a failure of the system while a hip replacement that’s out of reach for a person with average or diminished means is.

And now to the really urgent stuff. When I consider what the newborn internet, email revolution was like in the 1990s when I was teaching adult education classes in Northern Alberta and then pick up my smart phone today to connect with anyone world-wide, access a million libraries of information, post my thoughts or videos or photos into a space accessible to the entire world, I’m bound to take seriously the warnings of philosophers and writers like Thomas Friedman of the New York Times. The cyber-revolution, the development of silicon chip technology so that a USB “thumb drive” can store about 9 million times the data that a hard drive could in 1996 has—along with myriad other emerging technologies—altered the landscape of commerce, politics, crime, even social relations, culture and art to an almost unimaginable degree.

Citizens’ safety ranks high on our political agenda but I don’t think we’ve grasped the enormity of what safety means in a cyberspace age. New technologies demand safeguards protecting citizens from the criminal options, the spreading of misinformation, the interference in the democratic process. Our efforts to date have been sloppy, as anyone who’s been scammed on the internet can tell you. We like the idea of communication free from censorship but unless the internet with its myriad platforms and possibilities is regulated, it will become more and more the assault rifle of cyberspace and we certainly don't need another NRA-like lobby for weapons of mass intimidation and mayhem. Had we the anarchy on the highways, on the airwaves, in schools and other institutions that we demand in cyberspace, the earth would be unlivable.

My advocacy for a genuine citizen’s cyberspace safety strategy will be unwavering.

I mention refugee/immigration policy only because it’s been brought into our political dialogue by circumstances. I have no quarrel with current immigration policy but as regards refugee resettlement, the word “policy” seems odd; a bit like formulating a policy around rescuing people from a burning building. I favour expanding immigration and refugee resettlement capability, increasing by at least double the civil service charged with vetting, admitting and resettling newcomers to Canada. Newcomers contribute to our economy, bring new perspectives and augment the employment pool significantly. It seems obvious that climate changes that render parts of the earth less habitable will increase the ongoing need for resettlement of migrants; Canada is in a good position to be proactive in getting our responses right.

And lastly, I want to take a clear position on climate change. I suspect you all know the rudimentaries of the debate: the earth’s atmosphere is warming enough to cause changes in climate and weather, some of these changes are life-threatening, some endanger living species, some threaten food security; our dependence on fossil fuels along with a list of agricultural, industrial and consumer habits and processes must be rethought if we’re to prevent the worst-case scenario actually coming to pass.

A plan to do Canada’s part in a world-wide prevention plan is absolutely necessary; our favoured position as a wealthy nation with a very generous supply of fresh water, clean air, mineral resources and arable, food-producing land means to me that our place in the discussion has to be one of leadership. Anything less than “much more than the average,” anything less than modeling options for poorer nations, anything short of making conservational improvements across all areas of our economy simply isn’t acceptable. 

One of my first acts if I am elected would be to advocate for a parliament of climate strategy in which scientists, economists, sociologists, academics, historians and representatives of the general public would labour over plans that would be both workable and acceptable enough to gain broad consensus. Many little adjustments in how we do things, with transition strategies mapped out will make the difference.

My time is up, but I would like to engage with you on whatever concerns you have. I don’t, of course, have all the answers, God knows: Truth and Reconciliation efforts, education and tuition, urban sprawl, reforestation, rural high-speed internet, Northern cost of living to name just a few areas I haven’t had time to raise. For this, I offer my ten-page platform including—but not identical with—my party’s program in deference to the fact that whomever you elect will caucus with a party, but will represent you, not any political party. Please pick up a copy as you leave and read it. Options for contacting me—including challenges to what’s in the platform—are detailed in the package.

Thanks for coming out and listening attentively. If you choose me to represent you, I’ll do my very best to be faithful to the objectives I alluded to at the outset: 1) politics is the astute planning and management of a national budget and 2) politics demands concerted efforts to enhance and safeguard the well-being of all citizens well into the future. I look forward to the challenges, whether in or out of government. 

Friday, September 20, 2019

Before I vote

I'm writing this from Ottawa, the seat of our fragile democracy.
We don’t talk politics a lot, but we did—albeit briefly—at supper last night. It’s discouraging. Our party leaders are rolling out the promises by the ream, again: more money for your children’s future, more affordable housing, more for healthcare, more, more, more. And in our heart of hearts, we know that if these promises are ever kept, it will be like parents buying their kids every neat thing their heart desires . . . on Visa or Mastercard! Because the overriding promise, of course, is that taxes will be reduced, not increased to pay for the pledged goodies.

How did we get here? In this rapidly changing age, how is it we still do our politics like cavemen? We all know that government is not like parents in one way, not charged with “social engineering” the population to fit some preconceived ideal. 

Our federal government’s central responsibility is to do the budget for providing those things we have in common: infrastructure, safety, energy, food security, healthcare, global involvement, etc. 

Good parents know how to say “no” when necessary. They recognize the difference between the fundamental and the frivolous. Good parents know the comparative value of things, have the knowledge and the fortitude to choose. They don’t buy their children’s affection with money they don’t have. Good parents are open and honest; they explain their choices.

Only good people become good parents; only good people make good politicians. That’s possibly why many of us have lost faith in the party system of democratic politics; the majority approached in a recent straw poll indicated that they vote for the party, not the person nominated by the party. There are practical considerations for doing so, of course, but the downside is that the group of 350 or so we end up choosing to set priorities for us and enact our national budget on our behalf might well contain far more incompetence than necessary. We ought to choose our representatives far more critically than we do, don’t you think?

Some would say—justifiably—that our flawed political system has still resulted in our living in the best country in the world. That’s a judgment easily made, of course, but the general consensus—I think—would be that we have found a workable balance between individual autonomy and the public good. 

But, saying we live in the best country in the world might be a fine sentiment for Mount Royal residents, while it would undoubtedly sound hollow in Attawapiskat or Vancouver’s Hastings Street. Were our federal politicians truly the carefully-considered choice of their constituents without the load of party baggage they carry, the attention to the potholes in our democracy might get their due attention.

I live in Carlton Trail-Eagle Creek constituency. My current MP is Kelly Block, former mayor of Waldheim and a Conservative Party of Canada candidate. The others are: NDP-Jasmine Calix; Liberal-Rebecca Malo; Green Party-Dean Gibson; People’s Party-Cody Payant and Glenn Wright is running as an Independent. 

How on earth are voters going to get a fair picture of the qualifications and personalities of this crew without effort? Rebecca Malo has a Facebook page as do Jasmine Calix and Cody Payant. Glenn Wright is mostly known to us as one who has previously run for the NDP and was hoping to secure the nomination this time around, but didn’t make it. He too can be found on Facebook.

I’ve already called this one: Kelly Block will get as many, or more, votes as the others combined, but who knows if that won’t miss out on a representative with super intelligence, experience and qualifications.

And then come the photos of Trudeau in blackface, Harper with paint and feathers and the primary-school playground fight is on. “He hit me first.” Sheesh. What do we do with that?

If you were hoping for guidance in choosing where to place your X, only one suggestion comes to mind from this quarter: know as much about the candidates as you can, discard those who are primarily reactionary and from among the rest, pick the most grounded, the most well-spoken, the best educated, the one who talks most about issues and least about the opposition. 

Because, in the end, no matter to which party you feel an affinity, which party you feel you owe loyalty, any party will do well if their elected members are genuine, are “good folk.”

I think. 

I could be wrong. But I've never done blackface, although my brother did once. 

Friday, June 28, 2019

Zoonotics as Parable

Choosing the road less taken can make all the difference. (Robert Frost)
About 60 percent of all human diseases and 75 percent of all emerging infectious diseases are zoonotic, according to the researchers. Most human infections with zoonoses come from livestock, including pigs, chickens, cattle, goats, sheep and camels.” (

I don’t often venture into the medical sciences areas, mainly because my ignorance on the finer points would trip me up pretty quickly. Recent reading about the decline and near-decimation of the ancient Aztec, Mayan, Cherokee and Incan civilizations (in, particularly, Ronald Wright’s Stolen Continents) piqued my interest in zoonotics, the branch of medicine that studies the transmission of infection from animal to human. Most of us remember the near panic surrounding Hanta virus, an infection endemic—although harmless—to Deer Mice but deadly to humans not possessing an evolved immunity. We could add Aids, Avian ‘Flu, etc., etc.

Zoonoses hitchhiked to America from Europe and Asia aboard explorers’ and traders’ sailing ships in the 15th, 16th, and 17th Centuries. American natives hadn’t developed immunity to these hitchhikers because they didn’t exist in the New World and so populations were decimated; whole cities like Aztec Tenochtitlan (present-day Mexico City) were felled primarily by Zoonoses, not by a superior civilization.

The transfer of Zoonotic infection, of course, is significantly enhanced by proximity; the domestication of species has ensured that humans and a variety of animal species share common territory. As hunter-gatherers, humans would have suffered illness, but the likelihood of zoonotic virus/bacterial transmission was lessened by the infrequency of contact.

We have known since Old Testament time that improperly cooked pork can pass trichinosis from hogs to people. Although the vomiting and diarrhea result from a worm and not a virus/bacteria, the relationship between eating hogs and the possibility of contracting illness therefrom is analogous to the Zoonotic dilemma: since the agricultural revolution, we have made ourselves more and more dependent on a narrow range of domesticated plants and animals and in so doing, have exposed ourselves to a whole catalogue of hazards.

Moving from nomadic, hunting/gathering to a sedentary, agricultural lifestyle has, of course, vastly improved the availability of food but has also resulted in burgeoning populations and the clumping of humanity into villages, towns and, finally, metropolises. Smallpox once introduced into a human population became epidemic very quickly where people lived in close quarters; in the fifties, schools and churches shut down during measles, mumps, scarlet fever outbreaks, for obvious reasons.

The bigger you build your ships, the harder it is to steer them onto a new course. The history of living species being unable to adjust to changing conditions in time to avoid annihilation is epic. It’s estimated by some that the current rate of extinction of species is 10,000 times the prehistoric average, possibly up to one extinction every 5 minutes.i In historical terms, species like prairie songbirds, for instance, have been unable to adjust their food and habitat needs in order to survive the environmental changes humans have precipitated. The introduction of zoonoses to the American continents left the Aztecs, the Incas, the Mayans, the Cherokee and most other indigenous inhabitants defenseless. The surviving remnant was obviously weakened, often pock-marked by smallpox.

Human ingenuity created the current, rapid explosion of change, and this on a planet used only to the exceedingly slow adaptation of species a la Darwin’s natural selection and survival of the fittest principles. Whether or not human ingenuity is up to finding remedies for complications caused by too-rapid change will be evident if and when our history is written. With a population of 7,000,000,000+ individuals, we have created a massive challenge: “progress” has resulted in an awfully big human-species ship; climate change, super-bugs, resource depletion all represent massive, looming icebergs.

The conquest of the Americas was achieved by zoonoses and pillaging by greedy “pirates,” erroneously portrayed in our histories as courageous explorers and discoverers of lands . . . lands already settled, ironically. Their actions can be excused in part on the basis of ignorance; Henry Hudson, Christopher Columbus didn’t even know the simple remedy for scurvy, much less the devastating power of the world of microbes.

Ignorance can no longer excuse our reluctance to do what we can to lessen the effects of coming challenges or to prepare for their consequences. A three minute read is enough to “set the scene” that will be our climate iceberg.ii Unlike the aboriginal peoples of the Americas, we have the means to prevent and prepare; all we lack is the will.

Where I live, mustering the will to get serious about the future is made difficult because here on the prairies, our leadership is of the kind that insists on using the only available water to irrigate a lucrative potato patch while the house is burning. Unfortunately, I don’t think any of Moe, Kenney or Palliser would appreciate the analogy. 


Thursday, May 30, 2019

A Book Recommendation

The Spanish/Christian mythology enforced militarily in Aztec country
Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, by historian Yuval Noah Harari will be good reading for anyone who longs to appreciate world events through the insights available from our history. Harari not only considers who and what we homo sapiens are today, but why we are what we are, do what we do. If reading Harari can’t be a complete picture of the development of nations, cultures, empires (it is, after all, brief), it can at least teach us that we routinely neglect masses of accumulated knowledge when trying to assess current trends and events.

For instance, I suspect that most of us are puzzled about why the USA would replace a mild, decent, respectful president with an anarchistic, aggressive, belligerent commander in chief. Harari shines a light on the consequences historically of similar phenomena when he discusses leadership in conflict—through the lens of history:

The ability to maintain peace at home, acquire allies abroad, and understand what goes through the minds of other people (particularly your enemies) is usually the key to victory. Hence an aggressive brute is often the worst choice to run a war. Much better is a cooperative person who knows how to appease, how to manipulate and how to see things from different perspectives. This is the stuff empire builders are made of. The militarily incompetent Augustus succeeded in establishing a stable imperial regime, achieving something that eluded both Julius Caesar and Alexander the Great, who were much better generals. Both his admiring contemporaries and modern historians often attribute this feat to his virtue of clementia—mildness and clemency (p.157).

Although Harari is writing here about competencies leading to military success, the parallels to Trump’s economic warfare, his “make America great again” rhetoric echo both Caesar and previous presidents’ confusion about what constitutes greatness, and how greatness is arrived at. Exercising American “greatness” in the Middle East has cost many lives with no apparent, lasting benefit to anyone; the “shock and awe” of the 2003 invasion of Iraq predictably turned into more of a “bust and whimper.” (Further echoes of Vietnam and Korea; muscle can’t guarantee greatness, nor even success.)

The maxim that says we repeat and repeat our mistakes when we neglect our history comes easily to mind. Confusing the generation of fear with the cultivation of respect was Caesar’s mistake, was Alexander’s mistake, was Hitler’s mistake, was Stalin’s mistake, was Mussolini’s mistake, and is quite probably Trump’s big mistake. In a globalizing world, isolation and belligerence constitute a path to decline. We need only look to Putin and Kim Jong-un to recognize the futility of aggressive, fear-mongering leadership in a world dependent on cooperation in so much, including travel, communication, money exchange and trade. In a rapidly globalizing world—economically, socially, culturally—it becomes easier and easier to starve nations and peoples who choose defiant isolationism.

There’s much more in Harari, even though he’s titled it “a brief history.” His take on the differing mythologies that are able to bind enormously-large nations and confederacies together is especially revealing. A mass of people can’t become a stable, lasting culture or nation unless citizens share a basic mythology, whether that be democracy, religion, capitalism, socialism, multi-culturalism, etc. Even a corporation with thousands of workers is dependent on a mythology of purpose and rewards in order to be stable; loyalty to the common myth makes cooperation among large numbers of people possible.

Historically—according to Harari—imperialism has been a boon to our successful evolution as homo sapien species in that it absorbed any number of competing tribes into a more cooperative whole and facilitated the spread of science and peaceful governance. At the same time, imperialism’s forceful absorption of cultures and languages into a common, imposed mythology has cost millions of lives and extinguished cultural and linguistic variety. In this sense our nation, Canada, is a real-time study in the working of imperialism in that, for instance, Cree, Ojibwa, Inuit peoples who have been forcibly absorbed into the Western mythology . . . almost universally speak English now, as do Ukrainian, German, Chinese, Arab, etc. immigrants.

In short, Harari can add valuable insights into ourselves, who we are as 21st Century homo sapiens, and why we are what we are. I recommend it. Thanks to Eric and Joan for recommending it to me.

Thursday, May 23, 2019

There will come soft rains . . .

Memorial to Homo Sapiens? - Puerto Vallarta Malecon
There’s no denying: climate change and forecasts of dire effects for the planet and living things on it are front and centre in Canada’s public discourse these days. As with every prophetic pronouncement of impending doom, there are those who tear out their hair as they trumpet worst-case scenarios, and there are those who seek to maintain their happy place through denial. Between them are the quiet majority for whom the screaming, divisive rhetoric of the doom-sayers and denialists just adds another worry to an already-worrisome life, like a newly-erupting boil on the behind when your arthritis is acting up . . . again.

As far as I can tell, we’re pretty much agreed that flooding and wildfires are increasing noticeably and that that’s really, really bad for people who live in the most vulnerable parts of the country. What we haven’t determined to anyone’s satisfaction is whether or not the human ingenuity and innovation that contributed to the phenomenon of climate change can be redirected to slow it down enough to make a difference. Neither have we taken seriously the “What will we do about it?” question or put another way, “However will we pay for steps to protect vulnerable life on the planet in the future?”

Right now, we’re being urged to pick sides with positions that are nonsensical; a few zingers come to mind:

  1. A small but escalating carbon tax is the most effective and cost-efficient way to reduce corporate and individual use of fossil fuels.” This is nonsense on two levels: by the time we reach the point of effectiveness of such a tax the matter will have become moot. (Some projections have said that the signs of human extinction will be obvious already in a decade or two.) Much more than a carbon tax must be enacted if Canada is to make a reasonable, proportional contribution to the greenhouse gas solution.
  2. Canada’s contribution to greenhouse gas emissions world-wide is so minuscule that the imposition of a carbon tax is laughable.” This is nonsense on two levels: given that climate change’s effects will be global, any and every effort including the smallest contributes to the solution. Furthermore, Canada needs to model innovative options in order to have influence on laggard nations as the problem’s effects escalate.
  3. Climate fluctuations are normal on planet earth; there have been ice ages and ice-melting ages and the current global warming is just one of these fluctuations.” Global warming ended the last ice age around 12,000 B.C. The estimated world population in 10,000 B.C. was 4 million, so there was plenty of room on the planet for migrating to survivable climes. With a population exceeding 7 billion (or 7,000 million+), a similar option just doesn’t exist.
  4. Humanity has always been able to adjust to change and as it becomes necessary, we will adjust to global warming when we have to.” Historically, it’s been the wealthy and the powerful that have had the means to adjust to major catastrophe. Trump’s “We’ll build a wall,” Hadrian’s Wall, the Great Wall of China, the nuclear-arms race etc., are and were preparations for ensuring that the already-privileged would survive and prosper, even if that meant allowing (or requiring) the less-fortunate masses to starve in the dark.
  5. It’s all in God’s hands; God will save us.” That the God of Israel did not save his people from the holocaust or Haiti from the 2010 earthquake or millions of people from ongoing warfare globally etc. should teach us that whatever God’s activities in creation might be, rescuing people from their preventable follies—even from unpreventable natural disaster or human savagery—is not one of them.

The most troubling thought in all this comes from our abysmal record of denial and division where common judgment and joint action are called for. Every effort to unite us is countered by a political tribalism that effectively kills forward motion. Perhaps this trait is woven into our DNA so that we have no choice but to be competitive, even when cooperation is mandatory for our very survival.

The most pessimistic among us have concluded that the train has already left the station, or more aptly, that the canoe has already gone over the waterfall. Surely that doesn’t get us any closer to what’s to be done. For the optimistic rest-of-us, crossing our fingers and waiting to see what develops just won’t be enough, I’m afraid. 

There will come soft rains and the smell of the ground,
And swallows circling with their shimmering sound;
And frogs in the pools singing at night,
And wild plum-trees in tremulous white;
Robins will wear their feathery fire
Whistling their whims on a low fence-wire;
And not one will know of the war, not one
Will care at last when it is done.
Not one would mind, neither bird nor tree
If mankind perished utterly;
And Spring herself, when she woke at dawn,
Would scarcely know that we were gone. - Sara Teasdale

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

The lion, the lamb and cultural appropriation

In Rita's Garden on an Autumn Day 

I’m not sure how we got to the subject of cultural appropriation, but we did. Naturally, it led to questions concerning the meaning of free speech with the controversies currently swirling around what opinions one can express without the wrath of the political correctness police descending like holy fire.

I’m not comfortable with that absurd Chief Wahoo logo nor with the Indians name of the Cleveland American League baseball team. It didn’t bother me as a young man so I have to remind myself that the debate about cultural appropriation is a moving phenomenon; what was OK once ain’t OK no more! (I suspect that sports teams’ appropriation of Indigenous-culture imagery and naming was never for any other reason than to associate teams with the mostly-imagined, legendary fierceness and fiery battle skill in the “braves” Hollywood helped to create. Not a put-down, in other words. As far as I know, the name, Cleveland Anabaptists, wasn’t even considered.)

But I remember being appalled at Shakespeare’s creation of Shylock, a Jewish money-lender in The Merchant of Venice who projects every anti-Semitic stereotype that ever existed. I have to wonder if the Lone Ranger’s side-kick, Tonto, influenced my early childhood conception of the Indigenous of America. In imagination, I suspect, I always wanted to be the Lone Ranger . . . with a Tonto as servant. In 1851, Stephen Foster wrote a song called Swanee River including the line, “Oh darkies, how my heart grows weary/Far from the old folks at home. Can a choir still sing this song to an inter-racial audience without changing darkies to—perhaps—brothers?

If I’m Jewish and I express indignation at the portrayal of a fellow Jew as a despicable, grasping excuse-for-a-human-being, am I being “over-sensitive?” If I’d been aboriginal and Tonto’s portrayal nauseated me, would you have been justified in telling me to “just get over it already?” Or if I was born with a black face and I saw white faces blackened in a comic vaudevillian sketch, would I have reason to be indignant?”

Two things: Surely the test of whether a culture, an ethnicity, a race or faith is being exploited for attention or gain rests in the judgment of the one supposedly being exploited. What price do blond women eventually have to pay for the gags and jokes that portray them as having traded their intelligence for sexual availability? How often and how much can a majority culture appropriate ancient symbols and artifacts of indigenous faith and culture for decoration, before they become meaningless for the indigenous people themselves?

And second: If our writing, our art, our conversation should begin to lean again on particularly-negative stereotypes of others in order to attract attention or produce gain, how lacking in imagination would we have had to become? Identifiable idiosyncrasies, strengths, weaknesses, perversions, etc. cut across the human race; it’s not necessary to invoke our prejudices to write or talk about any of them.

The invoking of the political correctness mentality, the sensitivity about cultural/ethnic appropriation, the debate about the margins of free speech are together signs that there lives among us a growing hunger for the reconciliation of humanity—to each other and to the universe that is our home. That there should be a backlash against these impulses is to be expected; the politics of hate all around us a manifestation of this reaction. In the peaceable kingdom that Christ envisioned, people don’t use their tongues as swords, they protect one another from offense and harm, they’ve traded their militancy for gentleness, their judgment for mercy, their arrogance for humility, their greed for generosity.

We long to be born anew . . . and mostly don’t know it. The lamb and the lion long to sleep together. (That’s a metaphor; real lions long to eat tender lambs. I myself prefer them with mint jelly and rosemary. Inter-species appropriation. I’m not proud of my repeated culinary sinning.)